Monday, September 5, 2011

Teaching in Breach

The City and The CityWhen I began the semester, it was Catherynne M. Valente’s book about a sexually transmitted city, Palimpsest, that I was worried about teaching. Well, worried is maybe too strong of a word, but there are some texts that require tighter classroom management than others, and I was prepared for Palimpsest to be one of those. Still, after explicating all the quaint sexual punning in The Canterbury Tales and teaching a law school seminar on the speech clause of the first amendment that included a lecture on the constitutional necessity of wearing g-strings and pasties while dancing nude, I was sure I could handle it. More importantly, the book was too perfect for the course – The Fantastic as Place – to leave it off the syllabus out of cowardice.

Palimpsest, as it turned out, wasn’t a problem. No, the book that almost broke my class was China Miéville’s The City and the City.

The first issue was that, due to the excellence of Miéville’s worldbuilding, and some gaps in their own education, a significant minority of my students thought the paired cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma were real places, that the book I was teaching was mimetic, and not speculative, fiction.

The other issue was of my creation. I was so excited to teach The City and the City that I put it on the syllabus far too early in the semester – third on the syllabus, following Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, two books many students were familiar with, neither as challenging to someone unfamiliar with genre conventions as Miéville’s book.

I could tell something was wrong – the students were sullen, and resistant to discussion, and the classroom environment had gone sour. But it took me almost an entire lecture period before one of my students, who thankfully took me at my word when I said that they didn’t have to like the texts we would read, and that they were welcome to disagree with my interpretations of them, told me what the problem was: the book was too confusing, no one could figure out what they were supposed to be thinking about it, so they hated it. And it wasn’t fantasy, anyway.

Have a great weekend, everybody.

One of the things that I love about reading and writing speculative fiction is that the genre allows you to start with the metaphor. You don’t need to waste time engaging in flashy writing to prove that high school is hell, you can just begin with the fact that high school is Hell, and go from there. But I had forgotten that not all of my students were used to reading that way, that I shouldn’t have assumed any of them were.

The students’ reaction to the book made me rethink the way I would teach it. I put away the analytical pyrotechnics, and went back to basics – what was their experience of reading the book? We talked about how their feelings of discomfort in the text, of not knowing where they stood or what they should be paying attention to, helped build the world of Beszel and Ul Qoma. We discussed the idea of literary disorientation as a deliberate effect, not as a result of carelessness on the part of the reader, or the writer.

The City and the City wound up being the book that made the class a great one. I’m looking forward to teaching it again this semester. Much later in the syllabus.